A number of years ago, my wife and I attended a concert where two very popular musicians were playing together (Billy Joel and Elton John). I had gone to a ticket outlet on the first day of sales, and was rewarded with fifth-row center tickets in a stadium that would seat 50,000. I can't imagine ever repeating that feat! The concert was pretty much everything we expected . . . and more. There was something about being THAT close to the stage, and not just because we were able to see the performers without binoculars. No, there was something about being so close to the focal point of all the collective energy of the crowd. I had a sense of being drawn out of myself, and into something larger. It was very different than wearing headphones and listening to the same performers do the same music (even if the recording was of a live concert).
Earlier this week, Hindus celebrated the victory of good over evil in the festival of Dussehra (those of you who follow me on Twitter or Facebook will have been reminded of this!). As I was doing a bit of research on the festival, I ran across a number of photos/images of how it was celebrated; one is found above. And I was reminded of my fascination with the art associated with Hinduism. Multi-armed gods and goddesses. Vibrant colors -- not just of clothing but also of human/animal features. All very fantastical. And very few of them depicting natural realities. To enter into the world of Hinduism is, in some ways, to allow oneself to be drawn into some larger reality.
And, it happened this week that I was listening to an interview (aren't I always??) with Alain de Botton. He is an avowed, life-long, atheist who has started "The School of Life" in London, and whose most recent book is entitled Religion for Atheists. He is not associated with the so-called "New Atheists", such as Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens; indeed, he finds them relatively unhelpful. De Botton, on the contrary, sees much value in religions although he, himself, does not choose to affiliate. Some of the value he finds is in their ability to draw individuals out of their own limited perspectives. So, at "The School of Life," sessions/meetings may often contain majestic music--think "hymns". He admits to being captivated by the power and grandeur of cathedrals . . . because they draw the eyes and heart upward and beyond. Yet he remains firmly grounded in his this-worldly atheism.
What all of these have in common, of course, is the experience of being drawn out of oneself, being "taken to another place." In some respects, they contrast with the impulse found in almost all religious traditions, as well as in some "secular" pursuits, of "going inward." Meditation or mindfulness seek to put us in touch with our inner being, to help us listen to a "still small voice." And I think that is a great good! I love solitude and reflection. But I suspect that few of us can survive on a diet of solitude. Even the most introverted need, or can be fed by, an experience of utter transcendence and awe. Yet I find that, with the exception of large music concerts, most of us have few opportunities to be drawn out, up, beyond.
Going inward; going beyond. Two sides of the same coin? Or, to dip into another religious tradition, "yin" the other's "yang"? I would say so. Both seem necessary. But in this American culture, our opportunities for going beyond seem fewer and further apart. Which may suggest that we simply must look more diligently for the experience . . . and, possibly, be richer for it.